Who’s slowing down fast 5G?

Forget America’s opposition to Huawei. The real threat to 5G nirvana lies elsewhere. (Hint: Conspiracy theories are involved.)

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Pop the champagne! The 5G revolution is here!

This new generation of cellular networking technologies promises to usher in a world of better-than-gigabit downloads on mobile devices and enable next-generation autonomous vehicles, remote telemedicine and high-speed IoT devices.

The devices are here! Verizon shipped its Samsung Galaxy S10 5G smartphone this week. Huawei, LG, Xiaomi and OnePlus have announced 5G smartphone handsets, as have many smaller Chinese handset makers. Snap-on smartphone attachments and “puck” mobile hotspot products are also becoming available.

The networks are coming online! Internet metrics firm Ookla maintains an interactive map showing the locations of all the world’s 5G networks. New networks are reported on Ookla’s Twitter feed as they go online. According to the map, there are 303 5G networks already deployed around the world. (Interestingly, Switzerland, which has a population smaller than New York City’s, has more 5G networks than the rest of the world combined.)

While the media focuses on consumer 5G, private networks are being built by enterprises that will make a huge difference in how companies operate. Enterprise adoption of 5G will be faster than consumer adoption.

Unfortunately, both enterprise and consumer adoption is at risk.

Uh, better hold off on the champagne

While it appears that 5G is here, in fact it’s got a long way to go before approaching the status of ubiquitous or mainstream. And powerful forces are gathering against the deployment of 5G equipment.

Here’s the problem: 5G uses millimeter wave technology, which involves high-frequency radio waves. That higher frequency means more data can be transmitted faster, which is great. But it also means that the distance between the antennas and the user has to be much shorter — less than 1,000 feet. So 5G cells are much smaller, and widespread coverage needs many more base stations, much closer to where people live and work, compared with 4G networks.

There are two hot wars being waged against 5G adoption. One you’ve probably heard about — and the other you probably haven’t.

The one you probably heard about is making headlines globally. The Trump administration this week placed Chinese telecom giant Huawei on its blacklist of foreign companies banned from using American components, a move that is likely to lead to a blanket ban on Huawei sales in the U.S. Approximately one-third of Huawei’s suppliers are U.S. firms, including chip giants Qualcomm and Intel. The move is expected to delay the rollout of 5G in both the U.S. and China.

The U.S. government claims that Huawei 5G equipment poses a security risk, saying (correctly) that Huawei is too close to the Chinese military, and its equipment is just a firmware update away from becoming the ultimate spy tool or cyberwarfare weapon.

Despite grabbing all the headlines, the war over Huawei isn’t likely to slow global adoption of 5G by much. The real threat centers not on China, but on Russia.

Anti-5G disinformation

While the United States is using national security-driven equipment bans and international pressure on allies to slow Chinese 5G dominance, Russia is using disinformation to slow U.S. dominance.

Like most major governments, the Russian government is working hard to build 5G networks domestically as fast as it can. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a huge booster of 5G for Russia. The Russian government sees 5G as a low-cost way for the nation to compete against richer countries in the Americas, Europe and Asia. (Russia’s economy is approximately half the size of California’s, as measured by GDP.)

But outside Russia, the Kremlin is spreading lies about 5G in order to use public pressure to slow its adoption, according to a detailed report in The New York Times published this week.

Russia Today, or RT, has been spreading doubt and false information about 5G for the English-language version of its newscasts. (RT is a Russian government–owned news network that sprinkles official government propaganda and deliberate disinformation into its otherwise straightforward news reporting and commentary.)

RT routinely refers to 5G radio waves as “radiations” and the move to the new standard as the “5G apocalypse,” a “dangerous experiment on humanity.” One RT reporter literally said that 5G “might kill you.”

RT has reported, without evidence, that 5G may cause learning disabilities in children, brain cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumors and Alzheimer’s disease.

False news about the so-called dangers of 5G is also generated or spread on conspiracy theory sites. One popular Facebook-based conspiracy theorist falsely claimed that a 5G network test killed hundreds of birds in The Hague, Netherlands, according to the fact-checking site Snopes.

A pseudoscience website published another false claim that workers who install 5G equipment must wear hazmat suits to protect themselves from “radiation.” (Never mind that hazmat suits don’t even protect against radiation.)

Both these fake news stories were widely spread on social media and elsewhere and read by millions of people. And there are many others where those came from.

Grassroots opposition to 5G

While the propagandists waging economic warfare join forces with the online conspiracy theorists to spread fear over 5G, another war is being waged by earnest and concerned citizens worried about the health effects of 5G technology. They correctly point out that the impact of widespread 5G deployments on human biology has not been thoroughly studied. And into that knowledge vacuum the fears rush in.

The growing anti-5G protest movement is akin to the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) activists who might also oppose chemical plants, landfill sites, power plants, power lines, quarries and nuclear waste repositories if they’re near their homes and schools, but would not be mobilized if the same dangers were located elsewhere.

Leading the charge is an organization called Americans for Responsible Technology, which advocates a minimization of wireless networking in general in favor of cable and fiber networks, based on a concern for the health effects of increasingly widespread wireless technologies — something they called “massive wireless densification.”

Public protests are on the rise and have been reported recently in Kauai, Hawaii; Marin County, Calif.; Albany, N.Y.; Ashland, Ore.; Charlotte, N.C.; Woodstock, N.Y.; Long Island, N.Y.; New Zealand; and even the 5G capital of the world, Switzerland.

The Silicon Valley town of Mill Valley has already banned 5G over health concerns.

The disinformation war against 5G and the NIMBY war against 5G are the same war. They complete each other. The disinformation side spreads lies in order to fuel the NIMBY crowd. The NIMBY folk indulge their confirmation bias using disinformation to mobilize for protests.

In the Kauai story I mentioned above, a protester is quoted as saying, “In the Netherlands, they did this Tesla 5G and all the birds fell out of the sky,” clearly referring to the false story published on Facebook by a conspiracy theorist. The reporter didn’t challenge the claim, and hundreds or thousands of readers in Hawaii probably assumed it was true. Some of those readers will no doubt help man the barricades next time. Save the birds!

Hundreds or thousands of blogs and countless news reports pick up Russian disinformation and social media conspiracy theories about 5G, and some of this false information drives opposition in the U.S. and around the world.

And it’s this growing opposition, fueled by both deliberate lies and genuine concern, that is by far the biggest risk to the growth of next-generation cellular networks.

It’s time for businesses to get involved. Companies need to advocate, fund and direct solid research on the health effects of 5G networks to counter the disinformation and conspiracy theories, and enable the public to make an informed choice about how to move forward.

Either public health or, more likely, trillions of dollars of business efficiencies and opportunities are at risk. We need facts now. Because the new world of ultra-high-speed cellular data we all think is happening already may be needlessly delayed for years by the growing war on 5G.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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